From taking global culinary tours to watching TikToks about the latest foodie trends, First Watch doesn’t draw any boundaries to where it can source its inspiration from to create new dishes and stay relevant.
First Watch recently introduced a new line-up of permanent specialty iced coffees—like Honey Caramel Crunch and Mint Mocha—plus a seasonal summer menu, available through August 13. From Strawberry Tres Leches French Toast to Lone Star Brisket Hash and Carnitas Breakfast Tostadas, First Watch continues to dish out seasonal ingredients and recipes that elevate the brunch experience and differentiate the brand. It was Shane Schaibly, senior vice president of culinary strategy at First Watch, who spearheaded the brand’s seasonal menu program, introducing five seasonal menus throughout each year.
Schaibly joined First Watch in 2014 after serving at fine dining restaurants at The Ritz-Carlton, South Beach, and Tampa’s Café Ponte. He joined FB Brands concept The Melting Pot in 2007, where he helped the company set the Guinness World Record for World’s Largest Cheese Fondue Set while working as manager of culinary development. During his tenure with First Watch, Shane has successfully overhauled the brand’s culinary approach, beginning with the rollout of an industry-leading Fresh Juice platform. Using the juice program as a foundation, he curated a new Crafted Cocktail platform, effectively introducing alcohol to more than 300 First Watch restaurants for the first time in the company’s 35-year history.
In an interview with FSR, Schaibly gives readers an inside look at how the 480-unit NextGen Casual giant has cracked the culinary code on breakfast, and how it manages to keep fresh ideas and flavors flowing to stay ahead of competitors.
Can you walk us through the culinary innovation process for core menu items and limited-time offerings?
Every LTO follows the same process. I’ve been with the company for over nine years now, and when we implemented this process, it took a ton of work, a lot of heavy lifting for us internally, and for our test market. But once we got to that one full year ahead calendar-wise, it allowed us to be developing like 18 months out. We’re currently in development for the holiday 2024 season.
It always starts with just a collaborative conversation. We talk through what have we seen in our travels—we do one culinary tour every year, go to a big city, hit up all the independent restaurants, and just try and identify trends on our own. We love being students to the industry and learning and hearing what’s starting to gain a little bit of steam, or what’s a trend on TikTok or Instagram. We dump all these ideas out on the table; ingredients that are in season, dishes that have worked well for us in the past—a hash or a Benedict or a French toast has been really popular for us lately. And then how can we put these combinations together and make it exciting?
How do you narrow all the ideas down and figure out what will actually work with your consumer base?
We take 60 ideas and circulate them around—what gets you excited? We all get our votes and we tally them up. Frequently, the really good ones naturally float to the top and get the most checkmarks. So we’ll take probably the top 10 or 12 of those ideas and work on them for the next two months. That’s the back and forth, that’s the R&D, the further refining of each one of those dishes. And sometimes the ideas that we wrote down in the beginning, they evolve quite a bit, and they’re not always exactly how we imagined it. Then we do a big showing of the dishes we’ve been working on and taste through them all, and through that process, the ones that are going to win almost always come to the top. We might taste three French toasts, and we’re never going to run an LTO with three French toasts, so two of them are going to have to die. Sometimes that hurts a little bit, it breaks your heart.
You’ve said before you want to be an anti-chain. How does that philosophy inform your approach to crafting menu items?
I don’t want to have to sit down and wonder, are we going to have to shave five cents off this dish? Instead it’s, “make the dish as good as it can possibly be, and we’ll figure out the dollars.” The movement and the excitement around it and the social media stories—authenticity is a word we throw around a lot, but there’s something to that. If we were running one or two restaurants, that’s how we would do it, so why do it differently just because we’re big? Figure out how to continue those relationships with growers and make sure there’s enough watermelon out there for us to do our Watermelon Wake-Up every summer. I don’t ever want to be complacent and just go, “Oh, well, we’re too big, we can’t do that.”
This summer marked the first time you introduced a shareable option during summer with the Bacon Cheddar Cornbread—why?
Traditionally, we’ve done shareables in fall and holidays. People are a little bit more indulgent, they’re willing to spend a little bit more money. The last probably four years, we were frequently doing sweet shareables, things like donuts, or we’re about to launch churros this fall, or big cinnamon rolls. We did a [culinary] tour in Austin, Texas, and most of the places we sat down, they were serving us cornbread at the table. And that stuck out in our heads—is there something here? A lot of times that’s how it’ll start. This is cool; does it have legs for us? Does it make sense in our environment, and can we make it our own? So we played around a long time with it, and we’re like, cornbread [in the] summertime, that’s where it should live; it didn’t really feel right in fall or holiday.
If this has legs, the customer will let us know. And they proved to us that cornbread works in the First Watch world. But also, that a savory sharable is something they can get behind, because we’ve traditionally done pretty indulgent, heavy sweeter ones. So I think there was a lot to learn there. And everyone’s super excited about it.